All-American Robots Excel in Superhuman Ballet Mécanique
Although he was not per se a Dadaist, composer George Antheil (b. 1900, Trenton, NJ) was eminently familiar with the radical 20th Century art movements preceding his work in 1923-25 on the Ballet Mécanique, scored for multiple player pianos, doorbells, siren, airplane propellers, xylophones, tam-tam and bass drums. His library, at the time of his premature death in 1959 contained paperback versions of such publications as Marinetti's "Zang Tumb Tumb" sound poem and numerous copies of the periodical La Révolution Surrealiste, lovingly bound by a bookmaker into hardback form for safekeeping.
So the inclusion of his music Ballet Mécanique, originally for the film by Fernand Léger, Man Ray and Dudley Murphy, in "Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris," the largest such exhibition ever shown in the U.S., comes as little surprise. No other attempts at such radical Dada-like composition during the period 1910-1925 comes close in quality and invention to this work, in part because the other artists who wrote tried it were not composers but visual artists and poets.
Please refer to the excellent article by Gail Wein at the American Music Center's New Music Box site for basic details on the music and Paul Lehrman's painstaking and brilliant arrangement of it for non-human MIDI performance.
For this installation-style presentation, Eric Singer of LEMUR (League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots) worked with Lehrman to create solenoid-driven beaters and other devices to "play" the various instruments in Antheil's manic arsenal. The sound of airplane propellers is synthesized by cooling fans whose blades thwack against nylon strips that sound very realistic. The xylophones, bass drums and gongs are struck by beaters that respond on cue at insensible speeds. And the overall precision of the performance is a thrilling experience, especially for those us familiar with live performances of the music that always have been slowed by the limitations of human performance capabilities.
A recording of the entire work is planned by Lehrman (watch http://www.antheil.org for developments) and I look forward to hearing the music in its entirety performed in this arrangement wherever it takes place in the future. Standing in front of all those soundmakers certainly will be difficult to reproduce over loudspeakers from a CD, and the sweep of glissandi from left to right in the piano parts, nicely choreographed by Lehrman, is a visceral sensation to relish.
As for the Dada show itself, neatly arranged by city, there were many surprises, including substantial groupings of works by more obscure practitioners just now coming to light. And the 520 page catalogue by Leah Dickerman is beautifully organized and printed. The show runs through May 14th and performances of the Ballet Mécanique now are scheduled to run through the first week of May. The run has been extended past March 28th (the previous end date) due to overwhelmingly positive public response. Ballet Mécanique may be heard at 1pm and 4pm weekdays and weekends only at 1pm.